• sommelier •
sê-mêl-yay • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: The wine steward of a luxury restaurant, usually an expert on wines.
Notes: Today's Good Word was borrowed so recently from French that it still retains the French pronunciation. It has not had time to propagate, either, and so remains a lexical orphan without relatives. Exclusive restaurants have sommeliers; others have wine stewards.
In Play: The job of the sommelier, of course, is to help the customer match the wine with his meal: "The sommelier was so good at his job that he could tell by the look in Redmond's eyes that he was in desperate need of a glass of California Cabernet Sauvignon." However, since only the poshest of restaurants have sommeliers, you cannot separate the connotation of classiness from this word: "Malcolm poured the oil into the engine of his Jaguar as adroitly as a sommelier in a Parisian restaurant might pour a glass of Pinot Noir."
Word History: We noted that janitor is a lowly job with a celestial title. Well, that of a sommelier is a celestial job with a title of lowly origins. No, the title doesn't reflect the inattentiveness of some sommeliers (sommeil means "sleepy" in French). Rather, it is an alteration of sommerier "packhorse driver", a noun derived from sommier "beast of burden". French inherited sommier from Vulgar (street) Latin saumarius, itself a corruption of sagmarius "packhorse", based on Greek sagma "packsaddle". Sumpter "packhorse driver" is a variant of the same word. Fort Sumter, without the P, where the US Civil War began April 12, 1861, was named for General Thomas Sumter, whose name shares the same origin. (Today we toast Miriam Brown for suggesting this most delicious sip of English vocabulary.)
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